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Is There an Epidemic of Narcissism Today?

Meet the most narcissistic generation ever.

With a new book called The Narcissism Epidemic, the first and most obvious question is, "How do you know there's an epidemic?" The evidence comes in two forms: Changes among individuals, and changes in the culture.

Josh Foster (of the University of South Alabama) and I are releasing a study today showing that narcissistic traits are increasing even faster than we previously thought. From 2002 to 2007, college students' scores on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI) rose twice as fast as we'd found in an earlier study that covered changes between 1982 and 2006. (The NPI measures narcissistic traits among the normal population, not necessarily rising to the level of a clinical diagnosis).

The increase in narcissism was stronger for women than for men in both datasets. Men are still more narcissistic than women on average, but women are catching up fast. This makes some sense, as a lot of the cultural push toward narcissism (see below) has a bigger effect on girls and women.

Then there's the shocking data recently released by researchers from the National Institutes of Health. They surveyed a nationally representative sample of 35,000 Americans about symptoms that can add up to Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), the more severe, clinical form of the trait. They asked if someone had ever experienced these symptoms in their lifetime, so you'd expect that older people would have a much higher rate than younger people since they've lived more years. However, the data go the opposite direction: Only 3% of people over 65 had ever experienced NPD, compared to nearly 10% of people in their twenties. It's possible that older people forgot some symptoms from earlier in their lives, but that would have to be a large amount of forgetting to account for this big a discrepancy. With almost 1 out of 10 people in their twenties already experiencing NPD, it's sobering to realize how high that number might go in the coming decades.

There have also been big changes in behavior - cultural changes that are often started by more narcissistic people and then draw in the less narcissistic. Plastic surgery and procedures are up by a factor of six in just ten years. Materialistic attitudes have increased, and people are more willing to go into debt to afford the best - right now. Celebrity gossip magazines are more popular while the circulation of other magazines and newspapers have plummeted. My favorite anecdotal example: It is now possible to hire fake paparazzi to follow you around when you go out at night so you can pretend you're famous. This was unheard of just five years ago. For more on what the book covers, see our book website.

So the whole society has become more narcissistic - not just the people, but our entire value system.